I sit on the floor of what should have been my future child’s bedroom and stare at the field of stars painted on the ceiling, tears pricking the inside of my eyelids. Not two hours ago, Doctor Sharma confirmed that the tiny little dot of potential on the ultrasound monitor had no heartbeat. If next week’s ultrasound shows the same, she wants me to schedule a D&C in case the tissue doesn’t pass on its own–which seems likely, given the circumstances.
I said I needed time to think about things. What I really need is to ask my husband, Baqi, for a miracle.
The news hit him just as hard as it did me. He’s pacing in the backyard outside the nursery window, grief blurring the line between his mortal mask and his true nature. His eyes blaze like lighter filaments; his hair, normally black and meticulously combed, has transformed into a shock of smokeless flame.
I’m surprised he’s able to retain even a semblance of control over his inner fire, given the circumstances. When his father banished him to the mortal realm for agreeing to marry me, he was aflame from head to toe. The first thing we did when we bought our house was set up eight-foot-tall privacy fencing–no point in letting the neighbors worry about spontaneous combustion.
Before Baqi agreed to marry me, he made me swear never to ask him to use his talents for selfish gain. I didn’t question it at the time. How many people get the chance to wed an honest-to-god jinn? I made that promise with an eagerness that, in retrospect, smacks of naivety.
But now our child’s future–all of our futures–rest on the outcome of that follow-up visit I’ve scheduled for next Monday.
I open the window and peek outside, shoulders tense. “Baqi?” He grinds to a halt and turns toward me, grass smoldering beneath his feet. I brace myself against the windowsill and suck in a sharp breath. “I want you to–”
“No.” Baqi shakes his head, a brief but firm refusal.
My cheeks warm, my stomach twisting in defensive knots. “You didn’t let me finish.”
“I know what you were going to ask.”
“If you knew what this meant to me, you wouldn’t dare refuse.”
“I know exactly what it means to you, Cassarah, I absolutely know–but you made a promise. We made a promise.”
A promise that’s caused me no end of grief. Shortly after our one-year anniversary, Doctor Sharma informed me that I had polycystic ovary syndrome. It made sense–my menstrual cycle had been inconsistent for years. It took four years of trial and error to find the balance of hormone-altering medicines that allowed me to conceive. The whole time, I secretly prayed Baqi would cure me. He is a jinn, after all–aren’t jinns supposed to grant wishes? But he never offered, and it never felt right to ask because I’d made a promise I didn’t want to break.
In the five years we’ve been married, I’d never seen Baqi grant a wish to anyone. I’m starting to think he feels any request for wishes is a selfish one.
But this? This isn’t a selfish request.
I clench my fists and glare at him stubbornly. “I’m not asking for me. I’m asking for us. I’m asking for our baby–for the life that got extinguished inside my body. Don’t you think our child deserves a future?”
Baqi’s jaw twitches. I try to ignore the stabbing guilt that twists in my stomach; I purposefully phrased that so he can’t say no. He thinks for a moment, then says, “This won’t just change the child’s fate. It will change yours, and mine, and everyone else its life touches. Maybe things will be better, but maybe they’ll be worse–and we won’t know until afterward. Once I alter someone’s fate, I can’t change it back.”
“Our child deserves a chance to live. I want this baby so badly; we worked so hard–” I choke back a sob. “What if we can’t do it again? What if jinn and humans can’t conceive together at all?”
Baqi reaches through the window as if to caress my cheek but pulls his hand away at the last moment. Even inches away, I can feel the heat emanating from his fingertips. There’s a different, gentler warmth in his voice when he says, “I’ve never met a half-jinn, but I’ve heard tales of them. We’ll be alright, Cass. We got this far without artificial insemination, surgery, or surrogates. We can do it again.”
I shake my head, unwilling to accept his faith in a universe so profoundly unfair. “We don’t know what went wrong. Maybe it will happen again, and again, and–”
“You can’t know that.”
“My eyes see the threads of fate.”
“But you can’t predict the future. You get hunches, instincts.” I force cruel words through tightly-pressed lips. “You’ve been wrong before.”
Baqi’s eyes darken to embers, then turn black as coal. “You’re right. I can’t predict the future. But fate is a massive tapestry, and you never know what will happen when you shift one of its threads. I can’t just–”
“Not can’t. Won’t.” My jaw juts forward, a silent challenge. He can do it. I know he can. After everything his father put him through, after everything his father refused him, how can he refuse this of me now? If he chooses not to save our child when he has the ability to do so, that puts the loss squarely on his shoulders.
Baqi falls silent, taking calm, measured breaths. After a long moment, he sets his jaw, looks me in the eye, and asks, “Are you certain you want this?”
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and placed a fever-hot hand on my stomach. Warmth courses through me. Something tickles my belly from the inside, like a tiny butterfly beating its wings for the first time. I gasp, blood rushing to my cheeks as Baqi rekindles the tiny life in my womb.
He brushes his knuckles against my cheek. “It’s done.”
I take his hand in both of mine and kiss his fingertips. “Thank you.”
He avoids my gaze. “Don’t thank me yet. Fate is rarely kind once it’s been tampered with.”
Eight weeks later, I sit on an examination chair in Doctor Sharma’s office, wringing my hands as Baqi and I wait on the results of my amniocentesis. I try to ignore Baqi’s nervous attentiveness, try even harder to ignore the wealth of instructional posters on the walls–I’ve read each of them five times and have no desire to make a sixth round.
Doctor Sharma, an elderly Indian woman with oblong glasses and silver-streaked hair pulled back in a bun, sits in the chair across from mine. Her usual kind smile is conspicuously absent; her greeting seems abnormally thoughtful and withdrawn. She reviews her notes, brow knitted with concern. “We’ve had a screen positive result for trisomy 18. Your child has Edward’s Syndrome.”
My chest tightens. I didn’t know what Edward’s Syndrome is, but this screening was for chromosomal abnormalities, and the doctor’s demeanor feels uncomfortably similar to the one she had when she told me about the lack of a heartbeat.
Baqi stands and takes my hand in a gesture of silent support. I squeeze his fingers and draw strength from his presence–whatever this means, we’ll get through it together.
Doctor Sharma waves her hands in the air while she speaks, as if weaving her words from the ether. “I know how hard the two of you have tried to conceive. I wish only the best for you and your family. However, Edward’s Syndrome is a difficult thing for any parent to cope with. The duplicate chromosome results in birth defects, many of them potentially fatal. If you maintain the pregnancy, there’s a strong chance the child will be stillborn. Even if it survives the birth, it will likely die within the year. Most infants born with Edward’s Syndrome pass within the first week.”
I swallow hard. “Can you fix it?”
Doctor Sharma forces a sad smile onto her face. “There’s no treatment. I’m very sorry. If you’d like, we can discuss the potential for a medical abortion–”
My stomach lurches. I shake my head fiercely. “I’m keeping my baby.”
Doctor Sharma’s smile changes to the same one I’ve mastered in a decade of working retail–the one I give when a customer is wrong, and I have to pretend that they’re right. “I understand your feelings. Even so, I recommend taking time to think on the matter. This is not a decision that should be made hastily. If the child lives, it will experience serious developmental delays and require extensive care for the whole of its life.”
Baqi’s hand tightens around mine. He says, “We’ll discuss our options.”
I frown and yank my hand away from his. The very idea that he might be considering Doctor Sharma’s suggestion feels like a betrayal of trust. We’ve already come this far–how can he consider going back on our decision now?
I pay little attention during the rest of the visit. Every time Baqi tries to touch me, I jerk away. When the appointment ends, I climb into the passenger seat of our rusty black Cadillac Seville in a haze. The drive home is spent in a tense silence.
When Baqi parks in the driveway, I force back the tears that threaten to spill down my cheeks and place a hand on my stomach. “I won’t abort this baby. I won’t.”
Baqi massages the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger. “I’d never ask you to.”
“I didn’t want Doctor Sharma to think we were being careless about our decision. We’re not.” He scrubs a hand across his face as he gathers his thoughts. “We’ve already made it, is all. We made it the day I granted your wish.”
Baqi’s words soothe the anger boiling in my chest but do nothing to assuage the grief knotting my stomach. I take a shaky breath and ask, “How could this happen?”
Baqi’s expression is calculatedly blank–he always looks that way when he’s holding back an emotional explosion. “I warned you things could go wrong.”
“You didn’t tell me this would happen.”
“I had no way of knowing.”
Baqi’s eyes blaze. “I can’t.” His hands tighten around the steering wheel. Smoke curls from between his fingers; the leather beneath them blisters.
I can’t dance around this subject–not again. I cut straight to the hard question. “Can’t, or won’t?”
“Can’t!” Steam pours from Baqi’s eyes, fogging the windows. The scent of cooked, chemically treated flesh fills the vehicle as the driver’s seat chars beneath him, a smell eerily reminiscent of burnt hair. “The condition must have already been present when I granted your wish. It’s probably what caused the miscarriage in the first place. Changing fate isn’t a science, Cass. It’s not even an art. It’s a gamble.” He hisses a curse through his teeth in Arabic. “I’ve always hated gambling.”
My throat tightens. This isn’t his fault–it’s mine. He’d tried to warn me, but I didn’t understand. No, worse, I refused to understand.
I can’t hug Baqi, not with the waves of heat rolling off his skin, so I hug myself instead. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–” I bite my lip and start over. “I didn’t want this.”
“Neither did I.”
“What do we do now?”
Baqi rolls down the windows to let out the steam and smoke. “We take things one day at a time.”
In the months after Hope’s diagnosis–I insist on the name as soon as the doctor confirms her sex–my most bitter arguments with Baqi always seem to focus on the nursery. Will Hope really need a room of her own? She’ll be sleeping in our bedroom for the first year–assuming she even makes it home. Baqi and I are both satisfied with the star map on the ceiling but struggle to decide what color we should paint the walls. Baqi hates the idea of pink being forced on baby girls, and I refuse to let him slap the same combination of crimson, eggplant, and tiger orange on her walls that he’s favored in the rest of the house. In the end, we settle on royal blue, ragged over with sea green and spattered with gold. Not a traditional look for a nursery, but I love it.
As the months wear on, I spend hours lying on the plush gray carpet, one hand placed on my ever-growing stomach, the other pointing out constellations as I recite their names in a sing-song cadence. I know Hope can’t understand me–may never understand me–but I pray my voice soothes her as much as speaking to her does me.
Twenty-eight weeks into my pregnancy, Baqi comes home from work early. I’m in the middle of a stargazing episode, and he lies down on the floor beside me. “I’ve been thinking.” He speaks with the kind of somber pensiveness that always makes me bristle. “Whatever happens, we’ll want to be prepared for it.”
I frown. “Prepared how?”
Baqi holds up a silver chain–no, white gold, same as our wedding rings–and lets it play in the light. An oval-shaped locket dangles from the end, engraved with a delicate depiction of an eight-pointed star. In the center of the starburst, a single word is embossed in Arabic script.
I bite my lip, wishing I could read it myself. “What does it say?”
“Raja. It’s Arabic for Hope.”
That chain looks awfully long for an infant. And the locket–just the right size for a baby to choke on it. I shake my head. “We’ll need to wait at least a few years before we can give that to her.”
“It’s not for Hope, Cass. It’s for you.” Baqi flicks the catch open with his thumbnail, revealing the spacious interior. “We’ll be able to put in one of her ultrasound pictures, or a lock of her hair, or–”
I snatch the chain away from Baqi and click the locket closed. “I’m not going to mourn my daughter while she’s still growing inside of me.”
Baqi’s brow furrows. “I’m not asking for you to mourn. I just want us to be ready, in case–”
“In case what?”
Baqi’s nostrils flare. He takes deep breaths in and out, then snatches the locket back and stands abruptly. The stink of fresh-singed nylon fills the room. He drapes the locket chain over one corner of Hope’s crib and stalks toward the doorway.
I glare at his retreating form. “We’re going to have to buy fresh carpet.”
Baqi whirls around, the air shimmering around his eyes like a heat distortion in the desert. “We don’t have the money for fresh carpet.”
My jaw juts forward. “If we can afford this damned locket, we can afford fresh carpet.”
Baqi rolls his eyes. “I’ll pick up a rug tomorrow.”
The rug Baqi brings home must have been the cheapest, most garish thing he could find–it’s covered with even brighter reds and golds and purples than the shades I refused to allow on the nursery walls. It doesn’t match the rest of the room at all. I spread it over the human-shaped scorch mark, then shift the crib over top of it. That hides the rug, but leaves the space of the room off-balance. Most days, I succeed in pretending I don’t care.
More than once, I think about pawning that locket. Some days, I almost throw it in the trash. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of it–can’t even bear to touch it, especially on those days when the sight of it feels like a finger stuck in an open wound. So it remains, dangling from Hope’s crib, reflecting sparkles of light onto the ceiling during every stargazing session.
Thirty-two weeks into my pregnancy, when I’m getting ready for bed, I notice water leaking from between my legs. At first, I think Hope must be sitting on my bladder–I’ve not had trouble with my bladder before now, but I’ve heard stories about mothers who have. When I wake, the bed is damp around my pelvis. That slow, steady trickle of dampness continues. It unsettles me–what if something is wrong?
I call Doctor Sharma’s office. “It’s probably nothing,” the head nurse chirps, “but you should go to the hospital just in case.” I can’t tell if she’s genuinely unconcerned or trying to allay my fears. Instinct tells me she’s wrong. I drape the locket around my neck as Baqi drives me to the hospital.
After two hours, Doctor Sharma arrives. “It’s good you came today. The amniotic sack is leaking.”
Adrenaline surges through me. Babies breathe amniotic fluid before they’re born–what will happen if all that fluid drains off? Will Hope suffocate in my womb? Surely I’d go into labor before then. Wouldn’t I?
I squeeze Baqi’s hand in an attempt to quell my rising panic and ask, “What do we do now?”
Doctor Sharma smiles gently. “We’re going to keep you from going into labor as long as we can, but chances are very good your baby will be born within a few days. We’re going to give you a pair of steroid shots–one now, one tomorrow. They’ll strengthen your baby’s lungs. We’re sending you to ProMedica Toledo Hospital. They’ll be better equipped to help you there.”
The ambulance driver is no slouch–she stays in the fast lane our entire trip on the highway, and the rate at which she blows past surrounding traffic terrifies me. Baqi still arrives at the hospital before me. I don’t know whether to be impressed or furious.
The Toledo nurses keep me as comfortable as they can, seeking out extra pillows and warm blankets, but the pillows are thin and the blankets stiff. No matter how I sit, I can’t stay comfortable for more than a few minutes. The nurses refuse to let me eat or drink; they fit me with an IV instead and don’t bother explaining why.
Baqi sits beside me for hours, holding my hand. “Everything will be alright,” he says every few minutes; then he strokes my hand or kisses my forehead. He’s lying–at least, in part. There’s too much worry in his eyes for a positive outcome to be certain. His eyes flit to and fro, studying the invisible threads of possibility that weave through the world. Every so often, he pulls a nurse aside, out of earshot. He rarely returns looking happier than when he left.
Just before midnight, Hope slams both her feet into my belly so hard it’s like being punched from the inside. A surge of warmth rushes from between my legs; amniotic fluid soaks the bed sheets. Hope doesn’t care what the doctors advised–she wants out, now.
I do my best to relax as the night progresses–I want to give that steroid time to work. The nurses give me Nubain, which leaves me drowsy, but the labor pains are still so intense I can’t sleep for more than a few minutes at a time.
I make it the full twenty-four hours, but I don’t know how. When the doctors check to see how far into labor I am, my cervix is almost fully dilated. Nobody expected me to be that far along; they give me the second steroid shot and rush me into the delivery room immediately.
The Nubain, combined with the largely sleepless night, leave me hazy and unfocused. It’s all I can do to stay conscious and follow instructions. I push when told, struggling to avoid passing out when they tell me to rest, and try to ignore the fear that Hope might be safer inside me than out on her own in the big, bright world. The waves of pain and pressure get bigger, stronger, more intense with every contraction. It feels like my eyes will burst from the pressure as Hope’s tiny, squalling form slides into the doctor’s arms.
I get one delirious glimpse of her before they usher her off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Her mouth and chin are abnormally small, her lip cleft, her eyes widely spaced, her ears low-set. A dusting of black hair is matted to her oblong head. Tiny fingers overlap with each other, curled into fists. The sight of her is beautiful and terrifying, all in the same moment: beautiful because she’s mine because she’s alive; terrible because her body is imperfect because she struggles for every weak breath.
The strict, business-like facade of the NICU’s pallid white walls and wooden cabinets are offset by Thanksgiving decals of cornucopias and turkeys dressed up as pilgrims, stuck to the glass doors and windows in an attempt to bring a modicum of cheer to a place that desperately needs it. Whiteboards track the babies’ health and growth progress in riotous neon shades of red, blue, green, and purple. The room is sterile but warm, the chairs and couches uncomfortable but welcome.
Two infant incubation beds nestle in opposite corners of the expansive room. Curtains can be drawn to maintain the illusion of privacy. I keep ours closed whenever possible. I don’t want to know how the other baby is doing–I wish it and its parents well, but can’t bear the thought of comparisons or what-ifs. If I can see that other whiteboard, the temptation to compare Hope’s progress to that of her healthier roommate will be constant, and I don’t need that kind of envy or despair in my life.
Hope has the bed farthest from the door, which makes isolation easier. I yearn to hold her, but her incubation chamber makes that impossible. Every time I look at her, my heart aches. Objectively speaking, I know none of this is my fault–but this was my wish, wasn’t it? Even if Hope survives to adulthood, she’ll never have a normal life. How will she feel if she learns I forced this existence upon her? How would I feel in her place?
Three days after Hope is born, Baqi shakes me awake with a thick-gloved, over-warm hand. His words crackle like flames through the air: “The hospital called. Hope’s doing poorly.”
Oh god, no. I lurch out of the rust-red armchair I’ve been dozing in. “How poorly?”
“We should hurry.” Baqi lays out my clothes, then throws on his own in a frenzy. He almost forgets to grab the heat-resistant sunglasses he commissioned from a fellow jinn.
Dressing myself is a struggle. My feet are so swollen I couldn’t fit them in my shoes; I have to settle for sandals despite the November chill. I refuse to ask for help, though–every moment Baqi wastes caring for me is a moment we won’t have with Hope.
Baqi refuses to let me walk through the hospital for fear I’ll over-exert myself; he fetches a wheelchair as soon as we get inside, steering me through the halls at breakneck speed. Despite how fast as he moves, every second stretches on for eternity–an eternity I desperately need to preserve. The fear that Hope might already be gone when we arrive burrows into my chest, sucking my breath away.
As soon as we open the doors to the NICU, I hear monitors blaring from Hope’s room. Doctors and nurses huddled around her bed, desperately struggling to resuscitate her. She’s barely breathing. Her heart rate is dangerously low. When they pull out an epinephrine needle, my eyes dart to Baqi as I struggle to find words for a question I don’t know how to ask. He returns my gaze, sorrow-filled eyes glowing orange even behind tinted lenses, and gives a deferential nod.
In the end, the decision is mine. It always has been. I have to be the one to let her go.
“Stop.” My voice rings out through the room. I’m surprised by how calm I sound, how calm I feel. This isn’t what I want in any sense of the word, but even so, it feels right. If I could give Hope a better chance at life, I would–but I can’t, and the idea of letting her suffer any more than she already has hurts more than the idea of letting her go.
The doctors step away. The nurses disconnect Hope from the machines. I take her into my arms–so light, she might as well be made of air–and sit next to Baqi. He wraps his arms around me so he can cradle her as well. It’s the first time we’ve been able to hold her since she was born.
The last time. The only time.
The nurses draw the curtains, giving us privacy, and Baqi whispers in my ear. “Are you sure about this? There might be something I can do.”
I shake my head, a firm ‘no.’ “You were right. You were always right. It’s time to let her go.”
Baqi caresses Hope’s cheek, then kisses the back of my head. “You were right, too.”
I suck in a ragged breath. “Thank you.” The bands of tension that have been tightening around my heart shatter, leaving me numb inside and out. I thought this moment would leave me sobbing, but my eyes are dry. The tears won’t come. It’s not a lack of grief–it’s an abundance of it.
Hope shudders and gasps her last. As her body goes limp, a blue-white spark flies out of her open mouth, flitting about in the air like a firefly.
I blink, unsure of my own eyes. “What–”
Baqi catches the spark in a shaking hand and holds it in his open palm. “It’s her soul. Her spirit. We haven’t lost her completely.” He pulls off his sunglasses; his eyes mirror that same blue-white hue. He looks around in a panic and whispers, “We need something to keep it in until we get home. A bottle, a jar–”
I pull the locket from beneath my shirt and open it. Baqi places the spark into it with one finger and I close it with a shaky breath.
That night, when Baqi and I return home, we set the locket on the mattress of the nursery crib and open it together. The mote of smokeless fire floats out and dances around the room, tracing the constellations on the ceiling above.
Baqi smiles. “I think it’s safe to say our house is haunted now.”
I remove Baqi’s gloves and twine my fingers with his–warm, always warm, but no longer painfully hot. “It already was. You live here, don’t you?”
Baqi chuckles and pulls me into his arms. “You’re not wrong.” He purses his lips, ruminating. “She’s young yet. Her spark is faint. But as she gets older, I’ll be able to teach her things. How to speak. How to hide. How to weave illusions. If we’re lucky, she might grow strong enough to make herself a body one day.”
We watch our daughter’s spirit flicker to and fro, exploring the room in its entirety. The sight breaks my heart, but fills it at the same time. My daughter is alive–not in any way I could ever have expected, but alive nonetheless. I scoop the locket off the mattress and clutch it to my chest.
Baqi nuzzles my neck. “We can try again, you know.”
“We can. We will.” I lean back, enjoying the balm of Baqi’s presence. “But we shouldn’t rush it. I need time to get to know our little Raja first.”